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Spatial Delivery

Spatial Delivery is a game of economic development during a future period of galactic expansion. It was inspired by the March 2007 Game Design Showdown, "Future Business." This journal will record its development.

(Note: This journal began life as a blog on the old BGDF site. I have transferred it by hand to the new site.)

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Spatial Delivery wins KublaCon Game Design Contest

Originally posted on Tue 27 of May, 2008 [11:06am]

Spatial Delivery won the 2008 KublaCon game design contest, held on Memorial Day weekend in Burlingame, California.

I'll admit I was surprised. But the host and playtesters were enthusiastic about the game, and several of them told me individually that they hoped to see it published so they could buy copies for themselves. This feels really good, especially since the last game I submitted to them (Brimstone, in 2005) was judged to be "monotonous and quite boring." (A phrase like that sticks in your head.) But apparently my design skills are improving!

The best news is that the host has recommended Spatial Delivery to a major game publisher, and the publisher has asked me to send a prototype (not sure if I should name the publisher, so I won't). And then, of course, I get to sit back, chew my lip, and wait (and wait, and wait, probably) to hear back from the publisher. Fortunately, I've got a new design on the front burner to keep me busy and distracted! If the first solo playtests show promise, I'll start a new blog for the new design.

A nibble!

Originally posted on Fri 11 of Apr, 2008 [11:22am]

A publisher has shown interest in Spatial Delivery, and has asked me to send a prototype. Woot!

A prototype request is no guarantee of getting published, of course, and this isn't one of the big-name publishers. Just the same, it's my first nibble ever, so I'm feeling quite pleased. (Also unjustifiably excited and just a little bit smug!)

Trouble is, now I have to build another prototype. This is kind of labor-intensive (see "The Death of (almost) 1,000 Cuts" earlier in this blog) and I'm not exactly flush with free time right now. But I'll get it done. I still plan to enter my current prototype in the KublaCon design contest as well.

Illustrated Rules

Originally posted on Mon 26 of Nov, 2007 [09:56pm]

The rules themselves haven't changed (nor have I managed any more playtests) since the last post, but I have at least re-written sections for greater clarity. Clarity (I've often found) comes from good illustrations, so I've added one big one full of examples of legal and illegal builds, and updated a couple of others.

The updated rules are here.

Back in the Saddle

Originally posted on Sun 23 of Sep, 2007 [04:05pm]

I have had the work schedule from hell for the past few months. Spatial Delivery has been completely neglected during this period. I finally got some time this weekend to return to it, and had to start by carefully re-reading my notes from the last few playtests to get myself back up to speed.

But the time away may have done me some good. A few old ideas clicked gently together, and today I completed a solo playtest with some new rules that seem to give the best play experience yet.

There were two major problems I needed to solve, and I desperately wanted to solve them without substantially changing the feel of the game. The first was that the unequal distribution of Exploration Cards during the first-round draft made it difficult for some players to get started, making their initial round boring and putting them behind from the start. The second was that I needed a way to force each round to end: the old movement-is-free rules resulted in some "I'm not done until he's done" stand-offs.

To solve these problems, I removed Exploration Cards from the card drafting altogether, and introduced a new cost schedule for movement and exploration. Now each player receives two Exploration Cards at the start of each round, while the draft is for Goods Cards only.

Movement is in steps, where a step is moving your spaceship along the Trade Route of your choice to the next Trade Station you encounter. The first such step (per turn) costs one card of any kind — you will normally use Exploration Cards unless you're out of them, but you can also use Goods Cards. You may travel farther than one step per turn, but each successive step costs one more card than the last. So two steps is three cards, three is six, and so on. In practice most turns are just one step, or none.

Building a new trade route and trade station costs one card (usually an Exploration Card) per trade route segment, plus one Goods Card for each Settled World adjacent to the new station. The Goods Cards must match the worlds (a station adjacent to a red and a blue world costs one red and one blue Goods Card), but one card need not match if there are at least two adjacent worlds.

A player's turn consists of building once, then moving once, then delivering once, in that order. All of these actions are optional; but if a player skips all of them and does nothing on his turn, he is done for the rest of the round and may not take another turn until the next round.

With these changes, every player has the opportunity to build and deliver in every round; there's no such thing as getting stuck with all Exploration Cards or no Exploration Cards in the draft. Also every action a player can take costs at least one card, and players are not allowed to pass in mid-round; so every round comes to a deterministic end without a lot of pointless dancing around.

Players seemed to have plenty of choices to make. During the draft they are angling to get a good selection of cards, and deciding when, who, and whether to challenge. During exploration and delivery, there are some interesting decisions about how to spend your Goods Cards when you're out of Exploration Cards, where to build, how to out-maneuver your opponents, and whether to spend your cards on a low-paying sure thing now, or save them in hopes of a higher return in a later round.

it really felt like the best session I've yet seen. I hope to get in a live playtest with these rules in the next few months. (Unhappily, opportunities are rare and there are none on the horizon at the moment!)

KublaCon Playtest Results

Originally posted on Wed 30 of May, 2007 [02:41pm]

At KublaCon on Friday evening I met with Seth (sedjtroll) and others to test Spatial Delivery and Seth's Terra Prime (which is much improved from last year, by the way, and a game I'd be happy to play again.) Spatial Delivery got its first five-player playtest, with Seth, Tom Jolly, Candy Weber, and Seth's friends Peter and Julie. I just watched and played banker.

The good news: nobody hated the game, everybody got interested and involved, and it all basically worked. The challenge system was well-received, with players saying both that they liked it and that they had never seen anything quite like it before. Five players were not too many, which was a relief; someone even suggested I should try it with six. The new scoring system that I devised the week before was a definite improvement. All players gave me useful feedback and suggestions, especially Peter and Julie (and Seth has promised a shedload of suggestions when he has time to write them down).

There was bad news, too. Two problems surfaced which must be addressed. The first was that at the start of the game, a player who gets no Exploration Cards (or "rocket cards" as the players began to call them) cannot build and therefore may have nowhere to move or deliver. There are a number of fairly obvious ways to solve this problem, but I'm going to leave this one alone for now because the solution to the next problem might also solve this one.

The biggest problem is that it's difficult to tell when the move-and-deliver phase is over. This is because the phase ends when every player announces that he is done with whatever he wants to do. But movement is free, so there's really no reason for a player to declare that he is done unless he is completely out of playable cards. There's always the chance that some other player will pull off a late build and open a new market for deliveries, so players want to wait and see whether that happens. If nobody actually does a new build, they wait for each other forever.

There are a couple of possible solutions. One is to have players declare when they are done building, after which they may still move and deliver but may not build. That would break the deadlock, but it feels a bit like an inelegant "patch" rule.

Seth suggested that movement should not be free, and that players should be required to either spend cards on something or drop out. This makes good sense, but I am afraid that it will unbalance the whole economy and greatly change the feel of the game. That isn't necessarily bad, but it's daunting! Yet if done correctly, it could make the game more interesting by giving the players more significant decisions to make.

I'd like to fix these problems with minimal violence to the current ruleset. I've gotten enthusiastic responses from playtesters who would like to play again, and one who has said she would buy the game on the spot if I had a copy to sell! So I am reluctant to risk big changes that would alter the feel and flow of the game. At the same time, I'm willing to consider almost anything that will add interest.

I'll post again after I've had time to playtest a number of possible fixes. In the meantime, my thanks go to all the playtesters, and especially Peter and Julie who took time on Monday morning to give me more feedback, discussion, and suggestions.

Ready for KublaCon!

Originally posted on Sun 20 of May, 2007 [04:55pm]

I finally found time today for a solo playtest to try out the new rules outlined in my previous post. I wanted to try them myself before subjecting any others to them at KublaCon?, where I hope to playtest with Seth (sedjtroll) and others.

I was pleased that the most important change, the altered scoring for first deliveries, seemed to have the desired effect. I've experimented with "pyramid scoring" before; this time, the rule was that there is a separate pyramid for first deliveries of each separate kind of Good. I was hoping that this would give the players different goals without unbalancing the scoring too much, and I liked how it worked out.

Another change was that spaceships were now required to stop only at their own Stations, and not necessarily at others' Stations. I'd hoped that the differing travel rates would further differentiate the players. But that didn't work out: it just made travel too quick, and took away much of the fun of maneuvering for position and trying to predict your opponents' moves. After four rounds, I reverted to the original rule of stopping at every Station, and this worked much better.

The third innovation, a once-per-game chance to "HyperJump" to any Station instantly, I never used. I think it may be unnecessary, but I'll try it with live players at least once to see what they think.

All I have to do now is update the cheat sheets, and pack it all up, and I'm ready to go!

Differentiating the Players

Originally posted on Wed 09 of May, 2007 [02:58pm]

There are two problems I've been worried about. One is ensuring that the players are differentiated: that is, that they're not always after the same things all the time. Different goals make for a more interesting game. The second is that I want to give my players something to build during the game. By "build" I mean a large construct built up over time, not just (for example) a scattering of unrelated stations. This is a personal preference — I like building things — but it also contributes to story arc, and it can lend tension to a game if your final score depends on some construct or accomplishment whose completion is uncertain.

In early versions of Spatial Delivery, the construct was your private network of routes and stations; but the fact that it was "private" was hurting interactivity. In current versions the network is shared, but that took away much of the feeling of building something of your own. To restore that feeling, I instituted a pyramid scheme of bonus rewards: you were building a towering score, so to speak. And that has helped, but not as much as I'd like.

I am now considering (and haven't yet tested) another tweak, intended to aid both problems. The plan is that the first delivery to any world would gain the player a token marked with the kind of good that was delivered. At the end of the game, there would be pyramid bonuses for each player, for each kind of good (instead of one big pyramid for all first-deliveries together).

There are five worlds of each kind. If the pyramid schedule is 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, then you can get 1+2+3+4+5 = 15 extra points by making all five first deliveries of (say) Droids. The fifth and final such delivery is therefore worth six to eight points (5 + ring number of the world), which is substantial.

I'm hoping that this will add focus to the card draft, as players with three or four deliveries of a particular kind will want more deliverable goods of that kind in preference to other kinds. Success in claiming a high-value first delivery will give that warm "big bomb" feeling to the players, and the ability to beat someone out to such a delivery will tempt players to more interaction and screwage.

To further differentiate players, I'm also considering two changes to movement. One would be to change "you must stop at every station" to "you must stop at your own stations, and you may stop at other players' stations." This will create some speed differences to spice up the delivery races, and will give the players more to think about when planning their routes.

The second movement change would be to give each player a limited number of "Hyperspace Jumps." Using a HyperSpace? Jump lets you instantly teleport to any station. I'll have to playtest to get this right: you might get only one or two jumps per game, or one per round. You might only be able to jump to your own stations, instead of to any station. The idea, of course, is to give the players another decision to make: when and how can I best spend my jumps?

Now all I need is some spare time to get some playtesting in!

Another Live Playtest

Originally posted on Tue 24 of Apr, 2007 [11:26pm]

This weekend I again got a chance to play Spatial Delivery with real people — both of them game designers, so as always I got excellent feedback.

I wish we could have had one more player; the game is tuned for four and I doubt that my best efforts will ever make it play as well with three. The good news is that the game was well received even with just three players. Both participants (I was the third) enjoyed it, and said they'd like to play again. (One said she'd buy a copy on the spot, if I had one for sale!)

I was relieved at the good reception, because I was testing some very new rule changes that had seen only one solo test beforehand. While the game is still not what I'd like it to be, it does seem to have grown up a fair bit.

The part I was most worried about was the new card draft and its "challenge" system. During the draft, players take turns drafting one card (at most) each turn, until each player has drafted five cards. Cards can be simply taken from a face-up pool; but if the pool isn't suitable (or you're jealous of an opponent's hand) you can use a Challenge Token (each player starts with two) to try to take a card from an opponent. Challenges can be refused if the opponent has any Challenge Tokens of his own left, by giving them all to the challenger. To prevent take-backs and such, you cannot challenge an opponent if either of you holds any of the other's Challenge Tokens. This system actually worked, to my relief. All agreed it would be better with more players, but it did function and players used it to their advantage. (I was also pleased because the Challenge Tokens are the only mechanic in Spatial Delivery that is even faintly original! Every game should have at least one reasonably cool, unique feature.)

It is late and I'm not going to go into detail about everything I don't like about the game in its current state. I'll just mention some generalities: The build-and-deliver phase is not interactive enough. There's tension in seeing whether someone will build in a juicy spot before you do, and whether you'll get to make all the deliveries you are hoping for, and that's good as far as it goes. But too often, players wind up in separate sections of the board, no longer interacting and just mechanically turning Goods cards into XP.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. It wouldn't be awful if the meat of the game was in the card draft, with the build-and-deliver being a quick matter of proving "who won the card draft." But I'll need to play it some more (a lot more, actually) to get a feel for how much depth the current rules actually have, and where the important decisions are made.

Unfortunately I've had some changes in my home life recently — nothing fatal, but I'll need to be paying more attention to other things and less to game design, at least for while. I will keep up with Spatial Delivery, and hope to keep improving it. It will simply have to happen at a slower pace.

Whack-a-mole

Originally posted on Mon 16 of Apr, 2007 [12:05pm]

Apologies in advance for a long, rambling post.

Lots of solo playtests in the last week or two have shown me a number of flaws in my design. I've made a number of experimental changes to try to fix them, and often I find that fixing an old flaw makes a new one pop up. In some desperation I've wandered away from small tweaks into fairly major changes.

Building the board

Case in point: originally, the board was built up by adding a few new hex tiles every round: "new worlds being settled." The problem was that there wasn't room in the early rounds for all players to go into the richest areas of the layout, yet going in a different direction was usually suicide: there were rich areas yet to be revealed but you didn't know where they'd be and you couldn't plan ahead.

So I tried laying out the entire board at the start, and all of those problems went away, to be replaced by a new one: the middle of the board got ignored. It robbed the game of its story arc. Instead of starting small in the inner worlds and working their way outward, players would just save Exploration Cards (XC) for a couple of turns and then go for the more-valuable rim in a single big build.

Shared infrastructure

Another example: The explore-and-deliver phases of the game lacked interest because everyone's best moves were too obvious; and (I decided) they were too obvious because players had too few choices.

So I switched to a "shared infrastructure" system, where you could use other players' routes and stations for deliveries and for starting points for your own builds. This does seem to open up the play; but it takes away the feeling that you're building something of your own. Originally each player built and used his own routes and stations, so there was a strong feeling of ownership. It bothers me to take that away: I like games where you get to build something, and your success depends on how well you have built.

The latest test

In my latest solo test, I tried a couple more innovations. With only one test so far I can't be sure how well they work or how much I like them, but I think they're at least worth another playtest or two.

First, the board: I compromised by laying out the two inner rings at the start of the game, then adding the entire third ring after the second round of play. This seems to have the desired effect: players develop the inner rings because the outer doesn't exist yet; there is room for all players to act; and the shared infrastructure means nobody is penalized for guessing wrong about where rich worlds will appear later on. So far so good.

Second, the shared infrastructure: I instituted a "pyramid" bounty system. Each world has two tokens placed on it when its hex is first placed: one goes to the player who first builds an adjacent station, and the other to the player who first delivers to that world. You always get VPs as usual for building stations and making deliveries; but at the end of the game, you get extra VPs depending on the number of first-build and first-delivery tokens you have claimed. The reward schedule is the usual pyramid: for 1,2,3,4,... tokens of each kind you get 1,3,6,10,... VPs.

The pyramid rewards motivate the players to build often and to build into new areas of the board, so that by the end of the game the entire board is accessible. They also motivate players to be first to reach new worlds with the right goods; this puts some extra bite into the resource-gathering phase. And they provide a "big bomb": getting a seventh first-build or first-delivery is hard to do and is worth 7 points over and above the usual rewards.

Some of the anonymity of the shared infrastructure is eliminated by giving a player 1 VP every time an opponent uses his station for a delivery. So you not only want to build "first stations" but you also want to build them in desirable locations, adjacent to two or three high-value worlds.

And third, the resource-gathering. This used to be an auction for random batches of five cards. The problem was that the batches were too random. A good batch would produce a lively auction, no problem. But a bad batch would result in somebody just getting stuck with it, which wasn't fun for that player and didn't promote interesting gameplay in general.

I tried a number of schemes for improving the batch quality, but none were satisfactory. Some of them took too long to play; some were too "fiddly"; some were just stupidly artificial, obvious "patch" rules.

So I got radical and tossed out the auction in favor of a competitive draft, as follows.

A pool of four random cards is turned face-up. In clockwise order, players take turns taking a card until each player has successfully taken five cards. There are two ways to "take" a card. The first way is to just grab one from the pool; the empty slot in the pool gets refilled, and you're done. The second way is to challenge an opponent for a card the opponent has already taken. Each player gets two "challenge tokens." To challenge, you give an opponent one of your tokens, and indicate one of his cards. The opponent takes your token and either gives you the card, or refuses by giving you all of his own remaining challenge tokens. If he has none of his own tokens left, he cannot refuse you the card. To minimize abuse and non-productive "take-backs" you are forbidden to challenge anyone whose token you hold, or who already holds one of your own tokens: that is, you get at most one such interaction with each of your opponents.

This draft-and-challenge system seems to work fairly well. Players get to try to build their hands instead of just choosing among a few pre-made hands. There's tension in simply taking an obviously valuable card, because someone else might try to take it from you. There's tension in challenging for a card, because you might get refused. There's tension in using your challenges too soon, because you cannot refuse your opponents' challenges if you run out of tokens; but there's pressure to go ahead and challenge because sometimes you really don't want any of the cards in the pool. And there are tactics. It can be worthwhile to challenge for a card even if you think you will be refused, because if you are refused you have essentially lost your turn: so you haven't been forced to take a card you don't like, and you can hope the card pool will have something better in it when your turn comes again.

Results so far

I've done just one playtest with these rules. It went well, I think, but I don't understand the dynamics I've created well enough to decide how much I like it yet. So far it seems encouraging.

* I definitely like the card draft.
* If one test is any indication, the winner of the game is not clear until the game is over, whereas in the old rules you could spot the winner by the end of round 2 or 3 (of seven!).
* The old turn-order bias may be gone as well, eliminating the need for mechanisms to compete for turn order in every round.
* The final scores were so tightly bunched that I worry that the game is now too balanced!

The game seemed to be over after just five rounds, because all possible new builds and new deliveries had been accomplished. A sixth round felt superfluous. This is probably a good thing, as the gameplay is too light to justify a long game; but it may be that there's room for one final round of cashing in on what's already been built.

I'm concerned about fiddliness. When you make a delivery, you must:

(a) Surrender an appropriate Goods card;
(b) Place a Sales Marker on the hex (so no one else can deliver there this round)
(c) Take the first-delivery token, if it's still there
(d) Take your VPs for the delivery

Written out like this, the fiddliness actually doesn't seem too bad. Maybe it just seems like a lot because I'm trying to play four players at once in my solo tests. :-)

I'll post again after I've had a few more playtests.

Proto Photos!

Originally posted on Wed 11 of Apr, 2007 [12:43am]

I'd like to post some of the new rules I've been trying out, but they're still in so much flux, I'd feel kind of silly making a fuss over them — they might be obsolete within 24 hours. So instead, I'll satisfy my friends' requests (and my vanity ) by posting some pictures of the prototype I built this weekend.

End of game.

End of a game. The above shows the table after a four-player (simulated, solo) game. I think the board is not crowded enough with player pieces — I want to encourage more building so the players get in each other's faces more.

Close-up of the bits.

Close-up of the bits. This shows several of the hexes, some of the wood bits, and the delight of my heart: the little painted plastic spaceships! They're sitting on the Earth hex, at the center of the layout. Trade routes (wooden sticks) lead off to Trade Stations (wooden disks) out in the galaxy. The other planets are the Settled Worlds, each marked with the kind of Good it wants to import.

Goods Cards.

Goods Cards. And an Exploration Card ("XC") on the right end. You can see (I hope) how the symbols on the Goods Cards match those on the Settled World hexes. Goods and XC are purchased at auction, to be delivered to the appropriate Settled Worlds. The Exploration Card isn't a Good; you spend those in order to build trade routes and stations.

Between recent rule changes and some stupid mistakes on my first bits order (why in the world did I think black would be a good fifth-player color with those hexes?), I'm going to have to order more bits soon to fix up and improve the prototype. But it's quite playable as is, and I've been very pleased with it so far.

Escaping the GDS

Originally posted on Sun 08 of Apr, 2007 [05:50pm]

Throw off your shackles!

Two constraints of the GDS that inspired Spatial Delivery were that the board should be built up by the players during the game, and that the bidding would be for strictly limited numbers of items. I've had a lot of time this weekend to work with the game and run solo playtests, and I've discovered that those two constraints were causing a lot of the problems I was having. By dropping them both I think I've got a much better game.

First, building up the board: this sounded good in theory. Players' initial Trade Routes would be only to the visible Settled Worlds. As more Settled Worlds appeared, there would be fresh competition to reach those newly-revealed destinations. This would impose a natural story arc on the game, and also provide a handy game clock: the game would end in the round when the last hexes were placed.

But ii didn't work that way. Because players couldn't see the whole layout at the start of the game, they could easily be "marooned" by building toward the best currently-available locations, only to find later that they were dead ends. The simple luck of the hex-tile draw could doom a player's game.

Furthermore the first round of auctions was almost pointless: with so little of the board visible, nobody had a clue what might or might not be a valuable batch of cards.

Finally, the placement of the newly-revealed hexes was a problem. The board areas where the final hexes were placed had little effect on the game because they didn't exist for long enough. I experimented with "spread-out" placements that wouldn't favor one direction over another, but nothing worked well and all of them would have been difficult to explain in the rules.

So I've now tried three games with the entire board laid out at the start, and all of those problems magically went away. Players could see the entire board, form long-term strategies at the start, use the entire board at will, and intelligently evaluate the auction batches. Phew!

The "limited supply of goods" was another kind of problem. I had planned the card deck of auctionable Goods to be exactly enough to last the game. This required a deck of 120 cards, which is a lot to manufacture (see "The Death of 1,000 Cuts" below) and an awkward handful to shuffle. So I broke the deck's association with the game clock: reduced the deck to a much more manageable 80 cards, increased the game length by one round (which added a surprising amount of depth without adding much more playing time), and just recycle the discards when the deck runs out.

Fixing the auctions

I've been searching for a way to pep up the later auctions in each round, and I've found it, and it was simple: instead of five cards, the final auction each round is for only four cards. This makes even the last two bidders interested in winning the penultimate auction; yet it is not so harsh a punishment as to be a disaster for the loser.

The "Big Bomb" fizzles

A couple of posts back, I was excited about a "big bomb" concept: Planetary Upgrades that players could purchase to improve the payoff of selected Worlds. I thought it through very carefully and was sure it would work, but it didn't. It was too "chunky" somehow. Players able to take exclusive advantage made too many VPs, and I couldn't see a smooth way to tone the upgrades down without making them pointless. I had hoped that they would foster competition, since the upgrades would be available to anyone making a delivery to an upgraded world; but players simply wouldn't purchase upgrades unless they were pretty sure they'd get most or all of the benefit. So I had to throw that idea out.

Seeking a new balance

Today I had a new idea, and it seems to work fairly well (in solo testing, anyway). I've been worried about having runaway winners and hopeless losers, and I've been seeking a way to provide a bit more balance. The runaway winner is a player who gets some really good Stations on the outer ring, early in the game and pretty much to himself. The hopeless loser is the player who gets the worst Stations and can't ever seem to catch up. The new idea is the Nonesuch (which really needs a better name), and it will take a bit of explaining. It works like this:

The board is 2/3 Settled Worlds and 1/3 empty Space. Previously, Space hexes were worthless. But now a species of deep-space alien has been discovered: they avoid planetary systems, and can be found only where three empty Space hexes meet. Players who build Trade Stations there can obtain a cargo of Nonesuch to take back to Earth. Delivering a Nonesuch to Earth gets you 3 VP, the same as the highest-valued normal Delivery; but the catch is that Earth, like any other world, will accept only one delivery per round. The first Nonesuch delivery pays off; all others rot with no payback. Delivering the first Nonesuch therefore usually means being late to deliver normal Goods to other worlds; it is therefore (usually) profitable only to players who have nothing better to do: in short, the losers. It offers a kind of second path to victory: for the right player it can be a guaranteed 3 VP per round, which is quite significant. In test games it raised a player who would have been dead last up to a position at least in the middle of the pack, and in one case only one point behind the winner. It also added new tactical decisions for players to make: should they try to get the jump on delivering their normal Goods, or go for the Nonesuch this round?

Playtesting on the Cheap

Hey Seth: I think you could maybe playtest with a Settlers set now, if you've got an expansion with extra hexes. You still need 5 hexes in each of four colors. For cards you can use a deck of 19 of one kind of resource (for XC) and 5 each of all others. You'll be recycling the deck every other round, instead of just once in mid-game. Now get some money and VP counters and Sales Markers, and you're ready to go!

Prototyping: The Death of (almost) 1,000 Cuts

Originally posted on Sat 07 of Apr, 2007 [08:03pm]

A mild cold gave me a couple of days off, and I've spent them in building a customized prototype: no more purloined Settlers bits!

For the card deck, I tried some new materials and techniques, and they worked very well. My cards are printed onto "Lustre" finish photo paper, using a photo-quality inkjet printer. Not only do they look nice, that particular finish has a coefficient of friction similar to that of real cards. Translation: they shuffle well. In the past, I've used fairly ordinary card stock, but the finish is too rough and the cards wouldn't slide against each other. The lustre finish is slick enough to slide and riffle well.

The new technique was posted by MatthewF in (a thread on the old site). He explains how to tape a "fence" (I think of it as a "backstop") to your paper cutter, to ensure that all your cuts are exactly the same width. (It also speeds up the cutting process, because you don't have to measure each cut.) This is the other secret to a shuffleable deck: getting all the cards to be precisely the same size. I finished by using a corner-cutter to round all the corners.

The only drawback is that the paper is a bit translucent if there's enough light behind it. I wish I could get that stuff double-sided; then I could print a pattern on the cardbacks that should help with opacity.

For those interested in my DeckPrinter program for Mac OS X: the card layouts were made with DeckPrinter. The print-and-test files I've posted (see previous posts) include a couple of pages of DeckPrinter output.

For the hexes, I ordered blank cardboard hexes from Germany, and worked up artwork in Photoshop. I printed the artwork onto matte finish paper, then cut out the artwork hexes with a pair of scissors — they didn't need to be as precise as the cards. I ran each cutout hex through a Xyron to apply adhesive to their backs, then stuck them to the blank cardboard hexes, and spent a while rubbing the edges to remove excess adhesive.

The above took something like eight or ten hours to build (not counting Photoshop and design time). I've added it up: it took 200 slices with my rotary paper cutter to cut out 120 cards, then 480 punches with the corner rounder. Then the hexes were 222 edges to be cut, plus a few extra because of screwups that had to be re-done. That's over 900 assorted slices, cuts, and punches... and my hands are sore!

From Germany I also got colored wooden disks to use as Trade Stations, and wooden sticks (exactly like Settlers roads, but not stolen from my Settlers set!) for Trade Routes.

And the best bits: my wife, all praise to her name, knew where to buy little plastic spaceships! I sprayed them with primer, then painted them with miniatures paints, then sprayed on a coating of gloss. Presto! Five perfect, thematic player pawns.

Now if I could just settle out the rule changes I've been considering, I'd be ready for more playtesting!

The Big Bomb

Originally posted on Wed 04 of Apr, 2007 [12:25pm]

Jonathan Degann wrote four great articles under the heading of Game Design 101. I strongly recommend them to anybody with any interest in Game Design:
http://www.thegamesjournal.com/articles/GameTheory1.shtml
http://www.thegamesjournal.com/articles/GameTheory2.shtml
http://www.thegamesjournal.com/articles/GameTheory3.shtml
http://www.thegamesjournal.com/articles/GameTheory4.shtml

In the second article, he discusses a feature he calls a "big bomb": a disproportionately large reward that players can attain by gaining enough of an edge on their opponents, sometimes by taking a leap-of-faith risk. Big bombs can introduce new tension to a game, and offer alternate paths to victory.

I've been worried that Spatial Delivery was a bit too bland and straightforward, and I've been wanting to add something to spice it up. Seth (sedjtroll) has been after me to add some kind of "upgrade" feature to the game. He's right; the game needs a big bomb, and I think it's fairly clear how to do it.

I plan to introduce a set of unique tokens, each representing an "upgrade" that can be applied to a selected Settled World. Players can purchase and apply upgrades during the Exploration phase. Prices will be high; they will vary depending on the likely value of the upgrade, and will be paid in combinations of cards and money.

A first-cut list of upgrades includes:

* +1 VP per delivery (or maybe +1 in second ring, +2 in third, or one of each)
* Two deliveries per round
* Accept any kind of Good
* Accept extra delivery of specific kind

Again, each purchased token is placed on and applies to a specific Settled World. Its special power applies to anyone making a delivery to that world. The "specific kind" type shows one of the four kinds of Good, and allows one extra delivery of that kind of good to the world it is placed on. It might also be allowed to place those on an empty-space hex, to allow deliveries there as if it were a Settled World of the token's kind.

The high prices mean that players may have to choose between trying for an upgrade token, or just plowing ahead with normal development. Tokens that cost money will obviously cut into a player's bidding power. Varying prices and powers mean that players will have to choose between grabbing a cheap token while it's still available, or holding out for a high-power one that may be grabbed by someone else first. The desire to get the sole advantage of an upgrade should also make routing more interesting: players can either strike out for less-fruitful areas of the board, hoping to monopolize an area and enhance it; or compete for the good areas, hoping to horn in on any upgrades placed by their opponents.

Other than the need to balance the prices and effects carefully, I don't see any drawbacks to this notion. Anybody who does, please let me know!

Oh, and I need a thematic excuse and title for these things. "Economic Develpment Investments" works but doesn't exactly sound exciting!

Prototype progress; new ideas

Originally posted on Mon 02 of Apr, 2007 [09:34pm]

To my utter astonishment, my prototype bits arrived from Germany today! I didn't expect them for another couple of weeks, so I was caught flat-footed. I expected at least another week to get my card deck together and my little plastic spaceships painted. But now I've got all my wooden bits, and a bunch of blank hexes crying out for artwork.

I do have the card art complete (unless I change my mind about it again), so instead of printing and cutting a card deck tonight as I'd planned, I dove back into Photoshop to work up some hex art. The results are pretty nice, almost exactly what I'd imagined. It's amazing what you can do with some NASA space photography!

I've also been kicking new ideas around with sedjtroll and Nando, my two favorite design buddies. A lot of what we've been discussing are solutions to problems that may not actually exist — I want more playtest results before I meddle too much with some of this stuff. But they did spark an idea I might try soon: add a 'Special Action Token' to each auction lot. The tokens are spend-once and allow the auction winner to do things like:

* Skip one stop during delivery
* Build routes three to an edge
* Make 2nd delivery to one planet
* Spend $x,000 for extra Exploration Cards
* Stop and sell at another player’s station (on your route)
* Make two sales in one turn
* Earn one or two extra VP (per round, not per sale, that would be too good!)
* Steal another player’s Special Action Token (before he spends it himself)

Special Actions would have effect only during the round in which you spend them. I might or might not allow players to hoard them until a later round. The point of them, of course, is to create more interest in the auctions by making each lot uniquely valuable.

Print-and-Test available

Originally posted on Sun 01 of Apr, 2007 [04:48pm]

A prototype of Spatial Delivery can be cobbled together out of Settlers of Catan parts, plus money and VP counters, and the custom card deck. In a pinch you can use a grab bag of colored cubes instead of a card deck, if you have enough of the right colors. (You'll need a lot of black.)

(Note: The rules at the link below will no longer work with the prototype PDF!)

I've posted a PDF with full instructions for assembling such a prototype. It includes two pages of card images, which (after you print enough copies of each) allow you to build your own 120-card deck. The PDF can be downloaded from here: http://www.semicolon.com/Boardgames/Files/SpatialDeliveryProto.pdf
and the rules are here: http://www.semicolon.com/Boardgames/SpatialDelivery.html

Just so you know, you'll need a Settlers expansion (Seafarers or 5-6 player) to get enough of the right kind of hexes, or else you need to do a little extra work to disguise some of the tiles from the basic game. The instructions tell how to do it without damaging your Settlers hexes.

Eventually I'll have custom hex artwork as well, for those who want to go whole hog; but that's not ready yet.

First playtest results

Originally posted on Fri 30 of Mar, 2007 [09:23pm]

I took the new rules, and a prototype mostly made of purloined Catan pieces, to a playtest group where it received a good reception. The four players were engaged for the entire game, and agonized over their decisions, and delighted in their successes. There was good tension throughout the game, and never a time when players felt that all their moves were obvious, or their plans safe from their opponents.

But the playtest made it clear that turn order was very important. I was using a rotating first-player rule, but it wasn't enough for a fair game. Some players got to go first twice, others only once, and it was more important during some rounds than others. To fix this I adapted a feature of Age of Steam, and auctioned turn order along with the batches of Goods and EC. Simply, the winner of the first auction in each round is the first player for the rest of that round; the second winner goes second, and so on.

Auctioning the turn order was more "fair," in the sense that everyone could compete on an equal basis for the early turns. It also has a good effect on the auctions. Since every player must win one auction each round, the last player to win one has no competition and gets his batch for free. There's a risk in that, because that player is stuck with whatever batch he gets, and can't wait longer for a better one; but it's still attractive to get something for free, and risk the results. But if the last player also must take the last turn, it makes the free batch a good deal less desirable, and therefore makes the earlier auctions more competitive.

At least, that's the theory. I've had only one playtest with the auctioned turn order, and it was with only three players. The game worked, but it was kind of lackluster and the auctions were part of the problem. The first auction each round was lively enough, but players tended to pass the second in favor of winning the third for free: the difference in turn order wasn't enough to motivate them. (I think this was because the board was also less crowded than with four players, making turn order somewhat less important.)

I am now thinking about how to improve the three-player game. There are a number of possibilities (few planets, for example, to increase the crowding) but one thought I had was another change to the auction rules, to make the final auctions even less attractive. The new rule (which I haven't tried yet) is to charge each player an "auction fee," a sort of ante, for participating in each auction: say $2,000. The fee is non-refundable: if you lose the auction, you don't get it back, and you must pay another $2,000 in the next auction. But if you win, your fee is applied toward your bid payment. The winner of the first auction would then pay nothing extra, since his bid would (normally) be greater than the fee. But each lost auction would cost the other players another $2,000 each, and the player who "wins" the last auction would be out $8,000. This is (and not by coincidence!) almost exactly the average amount each player has to spend per round.

I'm reluctant to give my players reasons to complain, and being forced to bleed their pockets for lost auctions is sure to irritate some people. But I may try it anyway, if I decide that something of the sort is needed.

I am working now on a "real" prototype (no more stolen Catan bits), and when I've got some of that done I'll probably post a bit about how I made it and how it came out.

First changes to the GDS version

Originally posted on Fri 30 of Mar, 2007 [09:21pm]

Spatial Delivery was an entry in the March 2007 Game Design Showdown, "Future Business." My initial solo tests showed me that that entry was seriously flawed. I didn't have time to improve it for the showdown, but it seemed to have potential so I have kept on developing it. The current rules are different in a number of ways.

The first problem I found was that it was too easy to predict the value of a batch of Goods in the auction. Goods would be bid up to a point just below their expected value, so profits were low and sometimes negative. There was still a good game in trying to out-earn your opponents, but it was unsatisfying for the winner of a 90-minutes game to have only a few more dollars than he started with! To fix that, I changed the goal of the game from making money to making Victory Points (called "Market Share Points" in the game).

This change also meant that the players' starting cash was all the money they would ever have! Suddenly the budgeting got very tight, because your auction purchases would not get you more money. Your initial seed money would have to last you the entire game. This is good for a couple of reasons: among them, it prevents a runaway-winner problem because the leading player can't use his profits to bully his opponents in later auctions.

Another problem was that the board was too big; players could wander it at will, and had little need to interact with each other. To solve that, I made the board smaller and borrowed mechanics from Settlers of Catan and any number of pickup-and-deliver rail games. Players must now build up trade routes and establish nearby trade stations in order to make deliveries to planets. The smaller board and its mix of planets vs. empty space crowds players together, and makes them compete for the best routes and trade station locations.

The auction batches now include Exploration Cards ("EC") as well as Goods Cards (oh yeah, Goods are now cards instead of tokens). You need a good balance of Goods and EC to win, because you need EC in order to establish trade routes and stations, and you need Goods in order to profit from your routes and stations.

I also changed the rule that says any planet will buy any Good for a low price. Now each planet buys only one kind of Good, period. This makes it much more important to get the right Goods at auction, because you can deliver only to worlds where you have a nearby trade station. All of this adds interest and tension to the auctions.

I kept the one-delivery-per-planet-per-round rule; this means that there's also tension during the delivery phase. A Good worth 3 VP becomes worthless if other players beat you to the worlds that will accept it, and deliver their own Goods ahead of you.

The Original GDS Entry

Entry #11 - Spatial Delivery by Rick-Holzgrafe

(or, Star Bucks!) 3 - 5 Players 90 minutes

Players are planetary entrepreneurs, purchasing goods at auction on Earth for delivery to the other settled planets of the galaxy. The settling of the stars has just begun! As the game progresses, more (and more distant) worlds will be settled, offering new and more lucrative markets for the goods of Earth.

Components

61 Hexagonal Tiles 70 Goods Tokens 10 Spaceships Money Draw Bag

Overview

The galaxy is formed of Hex Tiles: one for Earth, 20 assorted Planets, 30 Space tiles, and 10 Asteroids. When the game is complete, Earth will be at the center of four concentric rings:

Alt text

Earth produces Goods of five different kinds. The other planets will all buy these goods, at prices that depend on their distance from Earth: that is, which Ring they are in. Each planet is also a premium planet for one kind of Goods (shown on the Planet tile), and will pay extra for that kind.

Players purchase Goods at auction, and periodically send their spaceships on journeys to sell those Goods — hopefully for a profit!

Setup

Place the Earth hex in the center of the table. Shuffle the rest face down, and stack them to one side. Draw 18 hexes at random and place them face-up to form the innermost two rings around the Earth.

Place the Goods Tokens in the draw bag.

Give each player $10 and two spaceships. Each player places one spaceship on Earth and keeps the other to show his color.

Choose a starting player. "Turn order" means clockwise from the starting player.

Rounds

Each round has six phases, in this order:

  1. Settle New Worlds
  2. Fill the Market
  3. Auction
  4. Delivery
  5. Warehouse Fees
  6. End of Round

Settle New Worlds The starting player draws six random hex tiles and adds them to the layout. Each ring must be filled before starting the next.

Fill the Market The starting player randomly draws two Goods Tokens per player, and lays them on the table in the order in the order in which they were drawn. This is the order in which they will be auctioned.

Auction The Goods Tokens are auctioned, one at a time. Bids are placed in turn order. Each player must increase the bid, or drop out. Winner pays his final bid to the bank, and takes the Goods Token. First bid for each auction rotates in turn order, so each player makes a first bid twice per round. The minimum bid is $1; if nobody bids on an item, it is discarded.

Delivery Players may deliver some or all of their accumulated goods. In turn order, each player moves his spaceship to a chosen planet and sell one Goods Token there. Turns continue, skipping any players who are done, until each player has sold all his goods or decided to stop.

Spaceships move like this:

Spaceships start the Delivery Phase at Earth. Spaceships move from hex to adjacent hex, paying $1 per hex. Spaceships may not move onto or through an Asteroids hex. There is no limit to how far a spaceship may travel, if you can pay. The return to Earth when done is free.

Selling Goods Tokens works like this:

When you sell a Goods Token, place the token on the Planet hex. Planets that already have a Goods Token are ineligible. (One sale per planet, per round.) The sale price at a premium planet is $10 * the planet’s Ring Number. The sale price at any other eligible planet is $2 * the planet’s Ring Number.

Warehouse Fees Players must pay $2 for each undelivered item they still possess. Players discard Goods that they cannot pay for.

End of Round All Goods Tokens are taken off the planet hexes and discarded. The player to the left of the starting player becomes the starting player for the next round.

Bankruptcy

A player who cannot pay to move his spaceship is bankrupt and out of the game. (This should not happen to players who are a little bit careful with their money.)

Ending the Game

The games ends at the end of the round in which the last hexes are placed. The player with the most money wins.

Strategy

Think ahead. Buy goods cheap that you can't deliver yet, and sell high later. Pay attention to turn order, so opponents don't beat you to a crucial market.

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